Bhartiya History

Reexamining history from a Hindu perspective and exposing the colonial distortion of their Vedic heritage that fails to recognize the spiritual root of Indic civilization.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Paradigm shift in history


Like physics a century ago, historical research today is in the midst of a paradigm shift. New methods need to be devised for dealing with data from sources like underwater archaeology, ecology and satellite photography.
THE HISTORY of India, especially of ancient India, is now in the midst of a major debate. This is over new data as well as new methods that they demand. When the study of ancient India by Europeans began in the late Eighteenth century, the driving force was the European discovery of Sanskrit and the extraordinary affinity between it and European languages, especially Latin and Greek. This resulted in new academic disciplines like comparative linguistics and Indo-European studies. It gave rise also to philology, a discipline devoted to the reconstruction of history and culture based on the comparative study of ancient languages such as Sanskrit, Greek, Latin and others.

Philology and theology

In the light of this, it is natural that the most influential figures in writing Indian history, especially ancient history, happened to be philologists rather than historians in the real sense. They put their stamp on the historical method also. According to Ralph T.H. Griffith, the well-known translator of the Rigveda, "The great interest of the Rgveda (sic) is historical rather than poetical. As in its original language we see the roots and shoots of the languages of Greek and Latin, of Kelt, Teuton and Slavonic, so the deities, the myths, and the religious beliefs and the practices... the comparative history of the religions of the world would have been impossible without the study of the Veda."

The passage is revealing in more ways than one. Philologists and historians of religion saw the Rigveda less as a literary work than as a source of philology and history, especially history of religion. As a result, right from the beginning, the field of linguistics (philology) and Indian history and culture — often called Indology — became inseparable from religion. And because of the perceived value of the Vedas as source in the study of religions, it soon attracted theologians like Bishop Caldwell and Reverend W.W. Hunter, who continue to exert their influence on Indology.

The work of these pioneers — both linguists and theologians — has left its imprint on the historical method and historiography. Even secular scholars like Max Muller could not escape the influence of theology. The real point is not that Nineteenth century scholars resorted to theological methods and beliefs that go with them, but the continued persistence of such methods and arguments well into the Twentieth century. For example, Murray Emeneau writing as late as 1954 asserted: "At some time in the second millennium BC, probably comparatively early in the millennium, a band or bands of speakers of an Indo-European language, later to be called Sanskrit, entered India over the northwest passes. This is our linguistic doctrine, which has been held for over a century and a half. There seems to be no reason to distrust the arguments for it, in spite of the traditional Hindu ignorance of any such invasion."

The fact that such an argument invoking a "linguistic doctrine" as authority could be made a scholarly field in the face of confessed lack of evidence bears testimony to the influence of theology on history. Observing such doctrinaire approaches, the Greek scholar M. Kazanas recently noted: "Several scholars indulge in semantic conjurings saying that various names in the RV (Rigveda) refer to places and rivers in Afghanistan, Baluchistan, Iran, etc., but... such interpreting (turning facts into metaphors and symbols, and vice versa) one can prove anything." (`Indigenous Indo-Aryans and the Rigveda' in: The Journal of Indo-European Studies, Vol. 30, Number 3 and 4, Fall/Winter 2002.)

This should not be seen as just disagreement over facts and conclusion, but as getting to the heart of the current debate over methodology— between a heritage based on linguistics and theology and an approach that seeks to place empirical data at the bottom of any theory. This phenomenon is more a commentary on human behaviour than objective research. Also, it is by no means limited to history. Even physics, a subject in which empirical data is paramount, has not been exempt from it. Max Planck, one of the founders of modern physics, observed in 1936:

"An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents: it rarely happens that Saul becomes Paul. What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out and that the growing generation is familiarised with the idea from the beginning."

All this highlights a crucial point: when confronted with new data that contradict an established theory, its proponents tend to ignore or rationalise the contradictions with ingenious arguments, or "turning facts into metaphors and symbols" as Kazanas puts it. This becomes more and more complex as data from new fields like geomorphology, satellite photography and genetics have to be dealt with as is the case today. As a result, arguments become highly convoluted taking one further and further from reality. This can be understood by looking at the growing body of knowledge about the Vedic river known as the Sarasvati.

The Sarasvati example

The Rigveda gives great importance to a river known as the Sarasvati. While the Ganga receives only one mention, the Sarasvati is mentioned at least 60 times. Vasishta, the seer of the seventh book of the Rigveda (7.95.5) describes Sarasvati as the river (and goddess) that brought prosperity to the "progeny of Nahusha" (Nahusha was one of the ancestors of the Bharatas, who were also known as the Purus and later as the Kurus). He also describes the Sarasvati as "purest among the rivers, flowing from the mountains to the sea." According to Bharadwaja of the sixth book (6.61.2), the Sarasvati in her course through the mountains "crushed boulders like the stems of lotus plants." From all this we learn that the Sarasvati was the greatest river, the most holy and also nourished large populations. This idea finds expression in the following famous verse by Gritsamada (2.41.16): ambitame, naditame, devitame Sarasvati. ("Sarasvati, best of mothers, best river, best goddess.")

There is now no river answering to this description. This led scholars to dismiss it as the imagination of poets. This is still the position of some scholars who insist that philology must have the final say in any debate. More to the point, beginning in 1978, evidence for the Sarasvati became available in the form of satellite images acquired by earth-sensing satellites launched by NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) and ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation). These images showed traces of paleo-channels that lay along the course of the Sarasvati river described in the ancient literature. They showed an ancient river channel ranging in width from 6 to 8 kilometres, exceeding 14 kilometres in places.

Once satellite data established the existence of the Sarasvati, several archaeologists, notably the late V.S. Wakankar, undertook the task of locating its course on the ground by correlating satellite data with ground observations. This and the succeeding investigations showed that the Sarasvati river described in the Rigveda is not a myth but a great river that flowed in a course more or less parallel to the Indus but to the east of the Sutlej. After going through many vicissitudes, the Sarasvati dried up completely around 1900 BC, except for a few minor seasonal streams along its former course. Nonetheless, some scholars continue to use arguments, mainly philological, to claim that the river never existed. At the same time, they gave no explanation for the abundant data attesting to its existence but insisted on the validity of their theory.

All this has an important lesson to offer. Like science, history must also progress. Progress is always driven by new discoveries that expose the shortcomings of old theories. To take an example, the Michelson-Morley experiment to determine the velocity of light gave rise to Einstein's Theory of Relativity. Also, at crucial points in history, progress comes in quantum jumps rather than in a smooth flow.

Paradigm shift

This invariably results in a "paradigm shift" that leaves aside old theories and methods. Any such shift leads to new methodologies — like the mass-energy equivalence and the uncertainty principle that lie at the foundation of modern physics. This also calls for new disciplines. This appears to be the situation in history today.

Noting this, Dr. B.P. Radhakrishna, President of the Geological Society of India and the editor of the authoritative volume Vedic Sarasvati: Evolutionary History of A Lost River in Northwest India (Geological Society of India) remarked in a recent editorial: "Evidence on the antiquity of Indian civilisation is considerable and can no longer be ignored. Archaeologists have no right to claim any monopoly of interpretation. Findings of other disciplines must also be taken into consideration. ... Geo-archaeology, an emerging field in earth science, has a very important role to play in unravelling the prehistorical evolution of man and civilisation in South Asia. We should build up a strong indigenous school of research in this vital area, with modern tools of underwater sampling, videography and mapping. Only then, can we come out with bold hypothesis to alter the entrenched `semi-colonial' perspectives of history and prehistory that will stand the test of time."

This is part of the paradigm shift. It demands new paradigms and a fresh outlook not tied to the past. It is also the challenge before the next generation of historians.


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